“I learned a lot from failure on the field”: Fergus Watts on his successful career pivot


When Fergus Watts reluctantly hung up his AFL boots a decade ago, he wasted no time in reinventing himself. Today, the 31-year-old steers Bastion Collective, a privately-owned communication agency that is forecast to turn over $20 million in 2017 and which counts NAB, Continental Tyres, Blackmores, Kathmandu, PowerCor, Witchery, Mirvac and Stocklands amongst its clients.

According to Watts, Bastion Collective’s founder and executive chairman, the agency offers clients a one-stop shop of communications and advisory solutions by drawing together a range of SMEs, each a specialist in their niche market, under a single banner.

“We enable each business to leverage each other’s expertise and excel in their niche market by providing them with an overarching business infrastructure,” he said.

“Our services span public relations and integrated communications, sponsorship, government engagement, large scale events and campaigns, reputation management, sales management, content and research. However, our unique selling point is our people. Our board, our team and everyone in our business family is passionate, entrepreneurial and highly skilled. We represent a range of sometime unexpected backgrounds, but we all share the same value – that businesses should make their staff and clients lives better.”

The former sportsman spoke to Dynamic Business about his successful career pivot, the growth trajectory of Bastion Collective and the role of emotional intelligence in his organisation.

“The game taught me valuable life skills”

In 2007, Watts – then 22 years old – retired from AFL, having played for both the Adelaide Crows and St Kilda. Although his sporting career had been plagued by injury and, for this reason, ended in personal disappointment, the entrepreneur is pragmatic about the experience.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t very good at football,” he told Dynamic Business. “Fortunately, I left the game having learned valuable life skills that helped me transition into my new career and which I continue to apply to this day. For one, I very quickly grasped the value of team work, which underpins everything we do at Bastion Collective. In fact, our whole model is based on finding the right partners, bringing them into the fold and working with them to deliver excellence for our clients.

“I learned a lot too from failure on the football field including how to pick myself up, move on and grow from the experience. I’m a big believer that failure is a key ingredient of success and being ‘ok’ with it is the only way you can do anything great.”

 “Talent doesn’t always translate to success”

Post-AFL, Watts began working for a brand communications company, which is where the idea for Bastion Collective took shape.

“I encountered marketers who were extremely passionate about the service they provided but, for all their talent, didn’t have the support necessary to create and sustain a good business,” he said. “Unfortunately, being the best in your field does not always translate to being successful in business.

“I began to envision a company that would combine a range of complimentary agencies together and support them in core business functions (sales, HR, overheads, finance etc).  That way we could just let them be the experts in their field and dominate their niche markets, while giving them the backing of a big business infrastructure. That is what Bastion Collective is all about.”

“The best thing I did was start the agency at 23”

Since launching in 2009, Bastion Collective’s revenue has increased at an average of 75% year on year and its workforce has ballooned to 150 staff, located across Australia, Asia, USA and the UK. Watts attributes Bastion Collective’s growth, which was achieved without external funding, to his commitment, since day one, to partner only with the right people.

“We’ve made sure the people we recruit to our team and our board are highly skilled and passionate about what they do,” he said. “We apply the same principle to prospective Bastion Collective businesses – we seek out innovative companies that are emerging as the best in their field, and we offer them a stable company infrastructure so they can continue to be at the top of their game.

“The best thing I did was start Bastion Collective when I was 23 because I had no idea just how scary running a business could be. I didn’t know much about anything really but I did know what I wanted to achieve and I was aware of my own limitations. That’s why I set about partnering with people whose knowledge complemented my drive and who had the experience I was lacking. I know perhaps a little too much now about the personal risks company directors take on a day-to-day basis. The trick has been to maintain the attitude I had when I was 23 and tackle challenges head on.”

“University doesn’t teach you emotional intelligence”

Last year, Watts teamed with people development expert Tom Harkin, aka the ‘Bloke Whisperer’, to create the Bastion Degree.  It is six-month course for new recruits, designed to foster emotional intelligence in the organisation – and it has since been embraced by many of Australia’s largest corporates.

“I never attended university or got a degree because I’m not a big believer in the current university system,” he explained. “I don’t believe it prepares people for life, where the skills that matter aren’t related to the knowledge you gain from books. You’ll never be able to understand and interact with other people in great depth unless you first understand your own narrative and why you are the way you are. Emotional Intelligence is the key to a happy and fulfilled life.  But no one teaches it.  You certainly don’t gain it from undertaking a commerce degree!

“For this reason, I don’t rely on CVs because they show what a person has done, not who they are, which is what we are interested in at Bastion Collective. I believe everyone is interested in learning more about themselves.  That is why we created the Bastion Degree on mastering emotional intelligence and modern day influence.”

Watts revealed Bastion Collective’s major objectives for the next couple of years include cementing the company’s place in the Australian market through continuous improvement, growing the company’s operations in London and Los Angeles and developing the company’s newly launched live business events, Bastion Live.

“We never do anything new until we have a world class executive team running the last new venture we’ve taken on,” Watts said.   We have that now in Australia and I believe we have never had more talent in our Australian business than we do right now. International and Live are two very exciting growth journeys for us that will support our Australian business and provide more opportunities for our clients and our staff.”